I admit it – I’ve never got over 1066. I might love our Norman castles and cathedrals but I still wail and gnash my teeth over what they represent: the grinding of Anglo-Saxon England under William the Bastard’s boot-heel. Call it race-memory or barking madness, it still hurts… though I’m reconciled to the Norman kings by the 1400’s, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the House of York. Weird. When I started Wars of the Roses re-enactment, it wasn’t like choosing a football team to support; somehow, deep in my core, I just knew I was a Yorkist.
So recent events in Leicester have filled me with joy and amazement. Yes, from an obscure grave in a long-demolished friary under a car-park to global mega-stardom, it’s been a funny old week for Richard III – the last English king to die in battle and the first to be subjected to full analysis by modern forensic archaeology. Let’s hope it’ll put an end to the parade of ludicrous caricatures to lurch and hobble across the stage in Shakespeare’s notorious play. Richard III wasn’t a hunchback; he had scoliosis, which made his shoulders uneven but didn’t disable him – he was an active soldier from his late teens. And it’ll certainly end the ignominy of his resting-place – at last, he’ll join our other monarchs with a proper tomb we can visit to pay our respects.
But where should it be? Arguments wax hot and furious between re-interring him in Leicester versus ‘repatriating’ him to the old northern capital, York, where he was well-loved in his lifetime and deeply mourned at his death. Naturally, Leicester want to keep him. He’s been there for 528 years; he was the most famous casualty of the history-changing Battle of Bosworth that took place on the city’s doorstep in 1485; and now he’s the British archaeological find of the century, excavated and analysed by staff from Leicester University. No wonder the mayor and council are rubbing their hands in unconcealed and rather tasteless glee: Richard III has put their city on the map in a BIG way, and will boost local tourism tremendously. Well, hell, these are hard times, and as a former heritage professional I can see where they’re coming from. Even as I sympathise with the other camp – the folk for whom King Richard means far more than filthy lucre. Folk for whom his death, the dishonour of his physical remains and the trashing of his memory by the bloody Tudors remain an open wound; folk who want him back in Yorkshire for love, rather than his tourist-pulling-power. Folk who still mourn, half a millennium later – and that includes me.
So, what’s the answer? Well, it’s a pretty safe bet King Richard wouldn’t have chosen to lie in Leicester, a city with which he had no particular connection except the negative one of having died nearby. But the argument for York Minster is pretty thin: he made provision for a chantry chapel there. Big fat hairy deal. Endowing chantries where masses would be said for their souls was something kings and noblemen routinely did at that time; Richard made benefactions to many religious houses including the lost chapel of St Mary at Towton, and made provision for a collegiate church at Middleham, where perpetual masses would be said for his family – so the chantry at York is no proof of his wish to lie there. The truth is, without a will or definite statement of intent, we’ve got no idea where Richard III wanted to be buried (I suspect Westminster Abbey, alongside his wife Anne and fellow-monarchs). And I’m torn. My head says, keep him in Leicester near the battlefield where he fell and where, against all odds, the University archaeologists have rediscovered him to the great interest of many local people. But my heart says, please give the North back our late lamented King, and re-inter him in York where we love him…